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Zambian President elect Hakainde Hichilema at his residence in Lusaka, Zambia on Aug. 16, 2021. Hichilema won the southern African country’s presidency after taking more than 50 per cent of the vote.Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/The Associated Press

Four years after he was tear-gassed and arrested by authorities who threw him into a maximum-security prison, Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has completed a remarkable comeback, winning a landslide victory in a historic election.

Mr. Hichilema, in his sixth bid for the presidency, captured a convincing 58 per cent of the vote in the Zambian election, compared with 37 per cent for President Edgar Lungu in official results that were announced in the early hours of Monday morning. A few hours later, Mr. Lungu confirmed that he was accepting defeat and stepping down.

Analysts called it a crucial victory for democracy in a country that had slipped dangerously close to authoritarian repression in recent years. It will be the third peaceful transfer of power between a ruling party and an opposition party in Zambia since 1991, one of the most impressive democratic records in Africa, a continent where many other rulers have maintained a tight grip on power for decades.

When the election results were disclosed around 2 a.m. local time on Monday morning, Zambians celebrated in the streets of the capital, Lusaka, by singing, cheering, dancing on top of cars, waving flags and blowing horns. Polls had shown that most Zambians were unhappy at the country’s direction, primarily because of a battered economy and rising prices.

Mr. Hichilema is a wealthy businessman who owns one of Zambia’s biggest cattle farms. Business analysts predict he will introduce more investment-friendly policies, although he inherits a battered economy and rising government debts, which will be difficult to reverse in the short term.

Four years ago, police fired tear gas into Mr. Hichilema’s home, broke down his doors and arrested him. He was jailed in a tiny underground cell in a maximum-security prison, with conditions so degrading that his toilet was a bucket. Police charged him with treason for allegedly obstructing Mr. Lungu’s motorcade on a Zambian road – although videos showed evidence to the contrary.

Mr. Hichilema was released after 127 days in prison when the charges were dropped. But in total he has been detained 15 times in his political career. He faced further harassment during the election campaign when police blocked his convoy in some regions and fired rubber bullets at his supporters.

In another intimidating move, Mr. Lungu deployed military vehicles and soldiers into residential streets during the campaign, claiming they were needed for security. Many observers warned that he might rig the election or reject the results. Authorities also ordered a shutdown of social-media platforms on election day last Thursday, although the shutdown was later overturned by a court challenge.

As the voting results began to be released on Friday and Saturday, showing the opposition leader clearly ahead, there were growing fears that Mr. Lungu would seek to discredit the results and cling to office. Those fears were heightened when Mr. Lungu issued a statement declaring that the election was “not free and fair” because of violence against ruling-party officials in three of the country’s 10 provinces. This rendered the entire election a “nullity,” he said.

Three scholars who specialize in African democracy – Nicole Beardsworth, Nic Cheeseman and O’Brien Kaaba – said Mr. Lungu was exaggerating the campaign violence and pretending the police could not control it. They described the President’s statement as a desperate attempt to imitate the tactics of former U.S. president Donald Trump by denying his own defeat.

“Despite enjoying all of the vast powers of incumbency that mean that presidents in Africa win 88 per cent of the elections they contest, Lungu and his lieutenants are complaining that the elections were rigged against them,” the scholars wrote in response to Mr. Lungu’s statement.

By Monday, however, the margin of victory for the opposition was so clear and substantial that Mr. Lungu could not deny it. “I will comply with the constitutional provisions for a peaceful transfer of power,” he told the country in a brief statement on live television.

Later in the day, he was photographed at Mr. Hichilema’s home, seemingly at ease, laughing and giving a congratulatory elbow-bump to the election winner.

In his first meeting with the media after his victory, Mr. Hichilema promised a new beginning for Zambia. “We will govern without fear or favour, without preference for any group over another,” he said. “The values of inclusivity, equality and diversity will be at the core of our administration.”

To his political opponents, he pledged “a better democracy where your voices and your democratic rights are freely exercised.”

In an early sign of how he could reverse Mr. Lungu’s authoritarian tendencies, Mr. Hichilema announced that a banned television channel, Prime TV, was returning to operation. “Sorry for what happened to you,” he told one of its journalists at his briefing.

Prime TV, the country’s biggest independent television station, had been twice ordered closed by the Lungu government, first temporarily in 2019 and then indefinitely in 2020. “Welcome back Prime TV, continue your good work in the new dispensation,” Mr. Hichilema said on Twitter on Monday.

Zambian historian Sishuwa Sishuwa, who himself had faced a police investigation for alleged treason when he criticized the Lungu government, said the Zambian opposition victory is “a welcome shot in the arm for African democracy.”

The election result was also praised in public statements by opposition leaders in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Tanzania – countries where opposition parties have suffered police brutality and repression in recent elections.

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